Municipal Campaign Finance Reform

In light of the By-election campaign finance disclosures report that was recently released here I thought I would take some time to share my thoughts on campaign financing.  

Last year Edmonton City Council passed a motion to recommend changes to the Local Authorities Election Act that would provide a more level the playing field for new candidates and promote individual donors by offering tax receipts for donations made to municipal and school board trustee candidates. Here is the motion approved by Edmonton City Council on July 8th, 2015:

That the Mayor write a letter and/or advocate to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Premier:

  1. Requesting that the city be given be the ability to independently establish campaign finance and disclosure rules in advance of the 2017 Municipal Election, either via the City Charter or other means.
  2. Notwithstanding desiring the autonomy for municipalities to set the other campaign finance and disclosure rules, Edmonton calls for amendments to the Local Authorities Elections Act to eliminate corporate and union donations for all local election candidates.
  3. Requesting that should the legislature move to limit corporate and union contributions for all local elections, that the province level the playing field by introducing tax credit eligibility for local election donations.
  4. That restrictions on contributions and related disclosure requirements be the same for third party advocacy groups/individuals as they are for municipal candidates.

Provincial legislation dictates how much money a candidate can raise, by whom the donations can be made by and if tax receipts are issued for any donation.  Currently candidates are able to accept corporate, union and individual donations up to $5,000 during an election year. Municipal candidates can also contribute a maximum of $10,000 to their own campaign.

The provincial government recently passed Bill 1: An Act to Renew Democracy  that bans all corporate and union donations to political parties.  This gives us some hope that as soon as October, the rules could change for municipal candidates as well, just in time for the upcoming 2017 election.   

We are not the only province and/or municipality to implement these changes.   Ontario is currently looking at banning corporate and union donations for both provincial and municipal candidates. Toronto banned these types of donations in 2009.  While B.C. is the only province that currently allows corporate and union donations to campaigns, some Vancouver City Councillors are hoping to implement the ban in time for the 2018 municipal election.

I feel this change is crucial in encouraging people to run who may not have heavily financed campaigns.  Given that the number of campaigns raising over $100,000 tripled between 2010 and 2013,[1] it is likely reasonable to infer that the fundraising required to run successfully is increasing. Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues: 2013 Edmonton Municipal Elections-Campaign Finance Discussion Paper [1] Excluding the mayoral campaigns, there was one $100,000+ campaign in 2010 compared to three in 2013.

Dave Cournoyer wrote a blog post on Edmonton municipal campaign donations and fundraising that I will reference here, but I encourage you to read the full post here “On average, successful campaigns out-fundraised unsuccessful campaigns on all metrics examined, bringing in more contributions, more maximum contributions, and a higher total dollar value of contributions. More than 80% of the successful candidates raised $50,000 or more (compared to just 16% of candidates overall). Excluding the mayoral race,  The most successful fundraiser was the victorious candidate in 100% of ward races.  Successful candidates raised an average of three times more money than the second place candidate in their respective race, and four times more than all other candidates combined.  On average, successful candidates received more than five times the number of donations between $101 and $4,999 than other candidates, and close to triple the number of $5,000 donations (the maximum contribution).”

Campaign finance reform will also reduce barriers for women who are considering running as research suggests women generally have fewer personal resources than men and their social and professional networks are less likely to include individuals who give regularly to campaigns. Because women have been underrepresented in elective office, donors may be less likely to consider donating to women candidates. (http://www.idea.int/publications/pp_can_usa/upload/Freedom_Chap4.pdf)

Federally, the maximum amount of donation to any party, leadership candidate, or election candidate is $1525.00 but increases by $25 every subsequent year.  I would like to see the our municipal election donation limit be on par with this amount or lower.  I do not believe there is a need to having higher contribution limits than what is accepted federally. Simply eliminating corporate and union donations while maintaining the large contribution limits is unlikely to create a more level playing field. While the motion at Council asked for the ability to set our own limits, personally I would be very pleased to see a new lower limit set across Alberta while giving the municipalities to go even lower if they so choose.

I would also like to see changes made to the Election Act that would allow for candidates to offer tax receipts for any donation made, regardless of the amount.  I think that would encourage donors to give personally which is important from a perspective of transparency and accountability.

In closing, I believe the current rules make it challenging for new candidates to run and creating rules that are more in line with what other cities and provinces are doing would go a long way in helping to decrease the importance of raising money. Ideally a campaign should be about ideas and while being able to share those ideas requires some funding, it should not dominate the election process. If you are interested in seeing changes made, take a moment and connect with your MLA to let them know you would like to see the changes made as soon as the fall sitting begins.

Co-authored by Kasey Machin and Andrew Knack

5 Comments

  1. Troy Pavlek on July 12, 2016 at 6:06 pm

    I think the thing I’d like to see more is a maximum total spending limit for campaigns. Being a councillor is a communications exercise, and if spending more money is the only way candidates know to communicate – perhaps they’re not the ideal candidate?

    A lot of elections spending feels wasteful, and a lot of sign spending seems inflationary – if every other guy has 5000 signs and you buy 2500 you’re falling behind. If every candidate has a maximum budget for 2500 signs the whole thing becomes much more equitable.

    • Andrew Knack on July 15, 2016 at 3:42 pm

      I love this idea as well Troy. It’s something Mayor Nenshi in Calgary suggested and I would love to see that implemented here. My blog was focused on changes that are more likely to be implemented prior to the 2017 election but a spending cap would be ideal.

  2. karen on July 14, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Don’t forget to clarify in kind personal donations…such as individuals providing professional services such as Internet or video.

    • Andrew Knack on July 15, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      That is a great point as well. That is already part of the rules but it’s important that candidates know those rules clearly. Thanks for reading the blog post.

  3. Julie Ali on August 3, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    I think corporate and union donations should be prohibited in municipal elections.

    Also the total donation limit should be under $500. I see no reason for anyone to donate more than this amount. Then there should be a limit on the total campaign expenditures. Excessive spending in campaigns always seems such a waste of cash.

    These restrictions may encourage direct interaction with citizens rather than slick media campaigns that do not reflect reality.

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